“Easy” isn’t “useful” (and it might be just kind of “dumb”)

Via Will Richardson’s blog and his entry “Transformative Technology?  Really?” about a video from a company (maybe the company?  I don’t know) that makes “smart boards,” those touch screen white boards where you can project all kinds of stuff.  Here’s a link to the video (I don’t think there’s a way to embed it). The video shows elementary school teachers using the board and discussing its use in mock interview-style discussion.

It’s all rather bothersome in at least two different ways. First, I swear they say “ease” or “easy” at least 30 times in this 5 minute video.  Second, the uses they demonstrate of this board aren’t exactly “transformative:”  really, it seems to replicate classic elementary school pedagogy, with students sitting in neat rows, the teacher pointing at something on the board, and, instead of writing with chalk and erasing with an eraser, the teacher just uses his hand!  Wow!  And to the extent that the students are actually involved in using these things, it is to do stuff that would just as easily be done on a whiteboard or a chalkboard.

It’s all rather odd because I know these smart boards can actually be interesting tools.  They have them at Will’s school (none in Pray-Harrold as far as I know, and I don’t think there will be any coming into the building anytime soon), and, from what I’ve seen, Will and his teachers use them a lot to project some sort of web-based thing, to project some sort of slide show, and/or to demonstrate something on the computer desktop the teacher wants to show.  The touch screen makes it a lot easier to do these things than it is with a computer hooked up to a projector. And at Will’s school, I think the students play around with them as much the teachers– at least that’s what I’ve seen.

After seeing this, I immediately thought of this recent CHE article, “Class Produces Parody of ‘The Office’ to Highlight Challenges of Teaching With Technology.” This one does include a YouTube video:

It’s funny because it’s true, and the smartboard promo video is also not funny because it’s true.

I wrote an essay a while back about chalkboards as a technology, and I quoted Larry Cuban in it as saying something along the lines of teachers don’t change the way they do things as a result of technology just because they can.  Rather, teachers change the way they do things as a result of technology if they perceive that new use of technology as being beneficial to their teaching– both for their students and themselves.

I guess I’d amend/revise that slightly. If teachers aren’t willing or aren’t able to really rethink the way that technologies can transform their teaching, then they shouldn’t bother with the expense and hassle of things like “smart” boards.  And if teachers want it all to be so “easy” that they don’t have to think about it all, well, that’s kinda dumb.  I worry about this at my own institution where I see some of my colleagues wanting things like “smart” boards and other bells and whistles not because they would do anything significantly or meaningfully different because it’s cool.  Kind of like that Monty Python sketch about the button that goes “bing.”

Actually, that University of Denver video has some good advice for getting started with teaching with technology:  get the students involved, allow for more collaboration, and don’t be boring.  Of course, the professor at the end of that video also talks about trying out “those clickers.”

Lotsa links/reader round-up

I have been procrastinating from cleaning my office by a) teaching (well, that’s kinda my job, so that doesn’t count as procrastination), and b) looking through some piled up google reader links.  So in an effort to put off office cleaning a bit longer, here’s a bunch of links in no particular order:

Okay, cleaning will commence.  Soon….

The remains of the weekend

There’s actually a longer post embedded in some of these items, but for now, I thought I’d just get some of these down here.  After all, I had intended on doing so last night but went to bed instead….

  • Cheryl Ball posted on Tech-Rhet asking about a Mac organizing software from a company (or maybe that’s the software) called Circus Ponies. It’s an organizational tool, which might be useful, though I find that my problems with organization and/or “getting things done” are not software-related.
  • Talking/working with Derek on a panel, and two ideas I want to get down before I forget: 1) it sure seems like a lot of people (including me) aren’t blogging at the same rate they used to blog (that’s a post one of these days, btw), and 2) while Facebook and Twitter are kinda cool, they aren’t a very good replacement for blogs.
  • Where have blogs gone?  Well, one theory I have is as newspapers and other print journalism go online, they are pressing into the space that was once occupied more by individuals.  This is not to say that individual blogs are going to go away, but why read (or even write) on your own individual blog if there is going to be a big newspaper out there willing and able to host your posts and comments?
  • Clancy “CultureCat” Ratliff notes some of the writing on the backs of desk chairs of classrooms where she is doing evaluations.
  • Alex Reid has a nice post about learning to write and how it impacts how we should and shouldn’t teach classes like first year writing.  I’ll need to come back to this.  I never actually took first year writing– I tested out of it.  I even was videotaped giving the speech I gave to get out of it, and I believe they took me and the other people who tested out to a lunch.  Thinking back on it briefly now, I believe we were an informal focus group.
  • Fine writing advice, he gist of which I give all the time and which I have to work very hard at myself to follow (and I frequently fail at that).
  • I kind of feel like I been a teleworker/web worker/distance worker/whatever for a long time, but that’s because I teach a fair amount online, and also because tenure-track faculty tend to have the luxury of working wherever they want.  Of course, the problem with “decentralized” work in general and defining “the work” of a college professor in particular is that I’m always working, in an office or not.
  • What’s the big trend now?  Nowism.  Actually, it’s more interesting than it sounds.  I like the list of “now applications” that are down the page a ways, and I like the term “Liquid Modernity” which comes from Zygmunt Bauman.
  • “The lost chicken hatcheries of Iowa City, IA.” Of course I have to note that, even though I am not all that crazy about chickens in Ypsilanti (I have yet to spot a coop in my neighborhood).

digital_nation looks like a cool resource; on the other hand…

Via this post on Henry Jenkins’ blog (who is moving his blog to his new digs at USC– hopefully this address will stay the same with no problems) comes information and a recommendation for “digital_nation:  Life on the Virtual Frontier” from PBS’ Frontline. It looks cool; I’m not sure if it’s aired yet or not, but there are some interesting video clips.  It could be good for 516, and even for the first year writing class I’m teaching right now where there are some students working on social networks for their research projects.

On the other hand, I have to say that I’m not entirely a fan of some of the people featured here.  For example, I personally have yet to be convinced that danah boyd’s work youth culture online is based on anything beyond common sense, her own gut feeling, and some experiences talking with kids.  Maybe her talk at U of M in a couple of weeks will change my mind.  And I think that Marc Prensky’s idea of “digital natives” is pretty much wrong in all sorts of ways.  But hey, these are the folks that PBS is talking to, and these are the folks who are leading, for better or worse.  And even if I think they’re wrong, they’re still interesting.

“Do computers make students better writers?”

There was a good article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed the other day, “Studies Explore Whether the Internet Makes Students Better Writers.” I think it might make for good reading/discussion for English 516, where this basic question of “are computers helping students be better writers” often comes up. I like this passage from Jeff Grabill too:

“The unstated assumption there is that if you can write a good essay for your literature professor, you can write anything,” Mr. Grabill says. “That’s utter nonsense.”

The writing done outside of class is, in some ways, the opposite of a traditional academic paper, he says. Much out-of-class writing, he says, is for a broad audience instead of a single professor, tries to solve real-world problems rather than accomplish academic goals, and resembles a conversation more than an argument.

Rather than being seen as an impoverished, secondary form, online writing should be seen as “the new normal,” he says, and treated in the curriculum as such: “The writing that students do in their lives is a tremendous resource.”

But I guess this does prompt me to think about/mention two things:

  • My guess/gut feeling is that a lot of the expression students have about how they “like” to write more outside of school than inside of it has a lot more to do with school than it has to do with what it is they’re writing. I agree with Grabill about trying to give assignments in classes about real world problems, things that resemble conversation rather than academic, five paragraph, “there are three problems with x” kind of essays. But no matter what I do to incorporate these kinds of writing assignments into my courses, there is still all the apparatus of the situation. I mean, none of this is voluntary. I wouldn’t be doing these assignments and this teaching if I wasn’t empowered (and paid!) as a college professor, and my students wouldn’t be doing this if they weren’t trying to complete coursework and a degree program. So there’s always going to be a division between writing students do for school and writing they do “outside of school” not because of the kind of writing but because of the situation of writing, which is school.
  • Despite the headline, it seems to me that neither of these studies is actually trying to answer the “do computers make students better writers;” rather, both seem to be studying how students actually practice their writing in and out of the classroom with computers. Which is a good thing. My take on the “do computer technologies help make student better writers?” is that it is really an irrelevant question because it is what students and everyone else uses to write nowadays. If someone did a study and somehow was able to prove that people “wrote better” when they used a quill and parchment (or hell, just pens and paper), it wouldn’t make any difference because I think most people nowadays find using these older tools to be a pain in the ass.

And really, the stuff that Grabill is talking about in the part I quote isn’t about technology. You can teach a dreadful academic research paper kind of class in a computer lab, too.

Us Now: a documentary about web collaboration

Via boing-boing, I learned about Us Now, which is a documentary film/project “about the power of mass collaboration, government and the internet.” I don’t really have time to watch it right now, but I can imagine this being something worthwhile for English 444 this summer and maybe 328/516 in the near future.

Two modest observations about the jounalism biz

I was talking to a friend of mine this morning who has worked as a newspaper reporter for a long LONG time now, this after hearing a story on NPR this morning about how the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is going to make a run of it publishing only online:

  • I think the story has been, ironically enough, somewhat mis-reported. True, fewer people are reading paper/printed newspapers. But when I talk to people who actually know about newspapers, what they tell me is that the loss of revenue that is just crushing them is classifieds. So it isn’t things like Google News or online versions of the newspapers that are doing them in; it’s things like Craig’s List and Monster.com This might seem like an overly nuanced take on this, but all the reported news I’ve heard has been about how the demise of newspapers has been the result of them giving away its content, when really, these other services invented a better mousetrap
  • On the one hand, newspapers are folding because they aren’t making any/enough money. “We can’t make money at this anymore.” Well, maybe newspapers need to figure out a better business plan or they need to acknowledge they are no longer relevant because of the technology. On the other hand, this is bad because the press as the “fourth estate” stuff. “But we need to protect democracy!” Well, maybe newspapers need to reorganize as not-for-profit entities more akin to public radio/TV, or as foundations like the Pew Trusts. But the only way that newspapers can stay both profitable and a force for democracy is to travel back in time.

Update: If anyone is interested in the opinions of other “experts” (actually, I am in this case), check out this post from Clay Shirky and this one from Steve Johnson. Both are also excerpted in this NYTimes op-ed piece. All good 444 stuff.

More Twitter stuff

“Twitter Nation Has Arrived,” by Alexander Zaitchik on Alternet.org. I found this in large part by first finding Chuck Tyron’s response, “Why You Should Be on Twitter.” I haven’t really read either one yet– I’ve been doing stuff all day and now I’m kind of watching Flight of the Conchords— but I have a feeling I will end up assigning some of this in 516 by the end of the term.

A couple of useful (potentially) Facebook links

A couple of Facebook articles that might come in handy for English 516 or maybe even 444:

  • “Why Facebook is for Old Fogies” from Time magazine. This is one of those little blurb articles that is not exactly “news” but it’s still kind of funny and also kind of true. Which makes me wonder: if Facebook has become something that “grown-ups” do, what are “the kids” doing nowadays?
  • Will Richardson’s take on an article from Ed.magazine, “Thanks for the Add. Now Help Me with My Homework.” Here’s my favorite passage for me because it rings very true in my experiences:

    In a recent survey of one of his graduate classes, Blatt found that 100 percent of these future educators were enrolled on Facebook — and 30 percent of them even checked their profile more than once a day. Just becoming familiar with social networking sites, however, doesn’t mean that teachers will be able to directly use them as a tool for formal class discussion or collaboration. In one of Wiske’s classes, in fact, students experimented with doing just that, using Facebook as a forum to “coconstruct” meanings of readings. “It didn’t feel like the place to have that conversation,” says Wiske. “The structure of the tools wasn’t as conducive to that discussion, and the pictures and other stuff on the screen were kind of distractions from that work.”

    On the other hand, there are other social networking tools that may be more directly appropriate for use in class. Some teachers are already using wikis, technology that allows students to take turns editing group projects to facilitate the often-difficult task of working together as a group, as well as to provide a trail of who does what on a project. Another new social networking site called Ning.com allows organizations to create their own closed networking sites that can be adapted for a school or even a course.

    A more likely use of SNSs within the educational context, however, is to use them as supplements to the formal in-class learning, building upon the spontaneous sharing that students are already doing. “I can imagine teachers saying, ‘I know a lot of you are on Facebook; I’d love to encourage you to share your draft work with friends, do whatever revisions are warranted, and then post your first draft on the class website,'” says Wiske. “That would be a design that took advantage of some affordances and patterns of behavior Christine is noticing without trying to commandeer these social networks as a location for structured class work.”

Online conferencing

There is not one but two online conferences of sorts going on right now that are kind of interesting to me. The first is the online portion of Computers and Writing, which features sessions spread out over the next week or so via a Sakai site (asynchronous), SecondLife (though there doesn’t seem to be that much going on there), and AdobeConnect. Actually, with the AdobeConnect synchronous sessions, there was one yesterday and one today.

The other one, which I found here via elearnspace, is the Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education. The theme of this conference is on improving online conferences, which probably isn’t a bad idea for a discussion.

In theory, online conferencing ought to be one of those things that I ought to be all for: I like teaching online, I like interacting online, I like reading and writing online, and I’ve published more online than not online; what’s not to like about the online conference? Well, so far at least, online conferences seem like the sad second cousin of the face to face conference, with fewer presentations and less “prestige” or weight as something to list on a CV. I mean, I could count it at EMU, but I can imagine many places where the response of a tenure and review committee to an online conference presentation would be a laughing snort.

But besides that, one of the reasons I go to conferences is to travel someplace else: you know, to see colleagues and friends and to attend sessions in a “real” time and space that is not the same as every other day. Often enough, part of conference going is sight-seeing and socializing, which is why Computers and Writing in Hawaii was well-attended, and which is why the CCCCs is not likely to hold its annual meeting in a town like Omaha anytime soon (even though maybe they should). But beyond the junket factor, going to a conference is a way of doing “work” while simultaneously getting away from the usual work routine.

And we already have on-going “online conferencing” of sorts: mailing lists and, increasingly more important IMO, blog spaces. The blog post is in some ways like an online conference presentation. I write a post, and it shows up in various people’s RSS feeds, kind of like a promised article/presentation in a program schedule. Some folks come by and take a look, but most don’t, which is also very much like a conference. In fact, judging by some of the small audience numbers at some conferences I go to, it sure seems like a lot of folks’ idea of “attending” a conference is going someplace, thumbing through the program, and then doing all the fun stuff of conference going.

Don’t get me wrong– I like the idea of an online conference for the same reason I like online everything, and sometimes the travel is simply not realistic. But maybe the format has to be different somehow. Maybe the blog carnival or some kind of wiki-based exchange is more viable than just mapping the traditional conference presentation onto an online space. Or maybe I just need to attend some online presentations and see how it goes.